Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

‘The Road’ and the disappearance of nature

Reading a short article about the reasons for the meat and dairy industry being unsustainable, and watching David Attenborough’s documentary, Madagascar (with its visual feast of beautiful, but ecologically endangered creatures in Madagascar’s forests), from the corner of my eye, reminded me of Cormack McCarthy’s novel, The Road, made into a riveting film by John Hillcoat in 2009.

If you read the article by Abigail Geer, you will notice that the 10 reasons listed by Geer are deforestation, fresh water, waste disposal, energy consumption, food productivity, global warming, loss of biodiversity, grassland destruction, soil erosion and lifestyle disease — all of which are intimately linked to continued meat- and dairy-production, and denote important indices of the impact this has on the earth.

Deforestation, for instance, is linked to this industry because the animals involved need more land than one needs for crop-production, and, to add insult to injury, entails the destruction of vitally needed forests (for biodiversity and for the production of oxygen through photosynthesis). All the other things listed there are similarly linked to the meat and dairy industry, which brings about a cumulative cycle of unsustainable practices, in other words, practices that cannot continue without undermining the very ground of their own continued existence. (Needless to say, alternatives to these practices point in the direction of vegetarian and vegan diets.)

But what does the term, “unsustainable”, really mean here? Among its synonyms are listed “unmaintainable”, “indefensible”, “unjustifiable” and “untenable”, which clarify its implications to some degree. But unless one elaborates on these within the context of a planetary ecological totality (which includes human society), or more concretely, of overarching “nature” as the indispensable condition of life for all living creatures — past, present and future — it does not quite hit home. This is what made me think of The Road.

To get an inkling of the importance of this novel and its counterpart film, here is George Monbiot, commenting on the book on which Hillcoat’s film is based: “It could be the most important environmental book ever. It is a thought experiment that imagines a world without a biosphere, and shows that everything we value depends on the ecosystem.” (You have to scroll down to the McCarthy entry under “Fifty people who could save the planet” to find this.)

Just reflect on this for a moment. Make it your own thought-experiment. Could any human being, or any other living creature, continue existing without food and water? We take things for granted if we are fortunate enough to have access to these two indispensable sources of energy, but try to do without them for just a day. There is a saying (if I recall correctly) that anarchy (in the sense of chaos) is just eight meals away. Miss your next eight meals, and you will experience the kind of desperation that would certainly lead to chaos if everyone were to forego their food and drink for eight conventional mealtimes in a row. This is the situation that McCarthy imagines in a sustained manner in The Road. I’ll concentrate on the film version here.

The noir-narrative of The Road unfolds on earth, but not the one of natural beauty that some of us know. The film does open with a scene-sequence displaying such beauty — trees, flowers and a horse being stroked affectionately by a man — but one that turns out to be dreamt by one of the main characters. This man is travelling on foot, together with his young son, across the desolate wasteland that used to be the bountiful earth, but is now a pitiful landscape covered by the trunks of dead trees, sticking out like quills from a porcupine carcass. They are shown, either looking for something to eat, or for shelter, or trying their utmost to avoid the roaming bands of men looking for, and hunting down other living creatures, including humans, to be eaten by them. (Yes, cannibalism is an obvious consequence when all of the usual, natural, sources of food were to be destroyed.)

In between these scenes there are periodic flashbacks to the time when he and a woman — the mother of the boy, who resembles her eerily — were still together, before nature was destroyed. For this is the situation depicted in harrowing glimpses as the narrative unfolds before one’s eyes: nature has finally caved in; plants are dead, no animals seem to have survived. One is never afforded any information as to the exact causes behind this, but early on the voice-over narration by the father informs the audience that the “clock stopped” when there was a “searing white light”, followed by a “series of concussions”. This suggests a nuclear Armageddon, or perhaps a planetary conflagration by solar flare, and one is aware of sporadically manifested signs of near-total ecological destruction in the intra-cinematic world — in fact, the man talks about symptoms of the “world slowly dying”, such as the worsening cold.

The man is trying to get to the coast with his son, and one can gather that he hopes to find some kind of succour there. Along the way they encounter adversity aplenty, ranging from lack of food to being apprehended by a member of a gang of men-turned-cannibals — whom the father disposes of by using one of the two precious bullets he has kept in case they have to commit suicide in the face of something too dreadful to contemplate. They also inadvertently discover a cellar-cum-bomb-shelter stacked with food, which they enjoy for a while, before the suspicion that someone has noticed their whereabouts forces them to leave, taking as much of the canned food with them as they can. Along the way they encounter a pitiful old man, with whom they share some of their food.

I won’t recount events further and spoil things for those readers who want to see the movie (or read the book); suffice it to say at this stage that, compared to another eco-political film, Avatar (where things work out in the end for the protagonists), there is no hope here, although the father assures the boy that they are the (Promethean) ones who “carry the fire” (of civilisation). The hopelessness is the point, and Hillcoat has succeeded admirably in cinematically visualising such an almost unimaginably bleak set of circumstances. In the novel, McCarthy’s sparse prose presupposes readers’ ability to imagine the endgame-situation for themselves. Don’t watch the film if you are squeamish; on second thought, watch it anyway to get an impression of what the destruction of the overarching ecosystem called “nature” would entail for us humans. This is what it means, in the not-so-long-run, to say that the meat- and dairy-industry is “unsustainable”.

Anyone interested in a thoroughgoing exploration of this theme can read my paper, “Film as communicational mediation of the ecological crisis: Avatar and The Road.” Communicare — Journal for Communication Sciences in South Africa, Vol 30 (1), 2011, pp 66-85.

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    • The Creator

      It’s definitely a good book, and reflects McCarthy’s deeply pessimistic vision. But do we really need postholocaust books to tell us that we need to eat and drink in order to survive? Do people really believe that food is spontaneously generated in supermarkets and fast-food outlets?

    • aim for the culprits

      Like everything yes and no. Modern agricultural practices are far more ecologically sound that those of our grandparents generation. isn’t the key to any form of sustainable agriculture the nature of the biome and the management of the enterprise? inland South and western Australia, the Karoo fringes, Weenen and parts of east griqualand all come to mind as places where unsustainable cropping on duplex soils caused widespread water and wind erosion. Overgrazing induced dongas are of course also widespread. In contrast, dairy and beef enterprise in, for example, the KZN midlands, are sustainable and while improvement is ever needed, rivers are still relatively healthy and rill erosion controlled.

      Production has in fact increased exponentially. This was true in the time of Maltheus and it remains so today. Ignoring even GM influences, irrigated maize productivity growth has been staggering within my brief lifespan of interest in such things.

      On the whole Armegeddon thing, humans have a remarkable ability to rise to the occasion when driven to. (We can also be lazy as a whole when not). for example after the 1928 depression, something like 40% of vegetable production in the USA was in backyards. Fidel Castro inspired a similar resurgence in Cuba after the USA imposed their sanctions. We could all do it again – easily. It is soil, not rocket science.

    • Maria

      @ Aim for the culprits: “Modern” agricultural practices are precisely what has led to the exhaustion of the soil, given the liberal use of fertilizer. This is why there is such a huge return to permaculture and organic farming, which do not damage the “live” attributes of the soil. And you don’t seem to be aware of what natural scientists the world over have been shoving in a deaf-and-dumb public’s face for the last few years, that our wasteful practices (a “logic of excess” in Thomas Princen’s phrase) have brought us before a looming ecological disaster. Sure people can, in principle, change and address these things, but there’s no sign that it’s happening, or that the world’s so-called “leaders” are driving any attempt to do so. Have you seen the recently launched film, Thin Ice, made by a scientist in collaboration with scientists across the world? Time is running out, and your smug attitude does not exactly help.

    • Rory Short

      @Bert as I see it until we recognise that we humans are part of Nature, not apart from it and its over lord, our destruction of Nature will continue. The only evolutionary correct way for us to use our consciousnesses is to use them to cooperate with Nature. Any other use of them is destructive and will ultimately lead to the disappearance of humanity.

    • aim for the culprits

      @Maria. My two main points were that agricultural practices are improving and we can grow more at home. Sorry if that and pointing increased technological advances is smug “having or showing an excessive pride in oneself or one’s achievements”.

      With all respect, I do see the very real strides taken towards agricultural sustainability. Most of the silting up of rivers and ruined landscapes etc in eg KZN happened 50 to 100 years ago.

    • Maria

      Here is an excellent, if realism/pessimism-inducing piece on climate change:

    • Barbra

      Thanks Bert, i shall look out for it. (I thought Avatar was ho-hum and totally forgettable, apart from some special effects.)

      I do fear that our total disregard for nature, and complete lack of respect and empathy for all other creatures, may soon leave us with a planet inhabited only by humans and insects…

    • Bovril 24


      … and I would only be certain about the insects.